Friday, 15 July 2011

In Review: 'Merlin and the Legend of King Arthur'. Dukes Walkabout Magical 25th & Final Season

The Dukes Walkabout Theatre has begun its 25th season in Lancaster’s Williamson Park to the poignant news that this will be its last promenade as Government cuts have left Dukes funding cut by 11% over the next three years.

Just to put this into perspective, proposed Arts Council spending in 2012/13 is:

• £5.97 per year per head in Merseyside,
• £4.26 in Cumbria,
• £4.18 in Greater Manchester yet only ......
• £0.60p per head in Lancashire.

So this year, to make sure the magic lingers on, they bring us Merlin and the Legend of King Arthur, a new telling of an old legend, of a realm divided, of love, destiny and loyalty, betrayal and greed, and the springtime of a nation.

Kevin Dyer’s tale is fixating from the off. The wizard Merlin has a masterplan, which needs King Uther’s male child, not his daughter, to unite two kingdoms in Queen Guinevere’s bedroom. Seeking her royal inheritance Morgana demands fair treatment after a test Merlin has had to pre-enchant so that only Uther’s son, Arthur, can win it.

Cheated, she loses her sense of humour and becomes a bitter rebel of treasonous intent. Arthur beats her fairly in the final and most important test, but the iron has already entered her soul. She uses her gifts to plot his downfall.

Joe Sumsion’s direction brings the archetypal qualities of every character into relief. Each is strongly drawn, holding their presence across wide sightlines. Ian Brown played Uther’s soldier to the hilt in a powerful opening scene that exploded expectations. Every character has a strong, human identity calling us to root for them. Except Uther, obviously.

The performance is atmospheric from the start, down in the Dell. Noel White, as Uther Pendragon, swiftly builds his character as a ruthless, shallow monarch who wields his power against death like a cornered rat. He has to, as Uther doesn’t last too long.

Merlin, played by Kieran Buckeridge, is a dark, statuesque figure, potent with mysterious power. Kieran is a late arrival in the production, as the original casting, Patrick Bridgman, unfortunately broke his foot. You'd not guess it, he makes a haughty Merlin. Merlin's really, really strange plan for uniting a kingdom shows its fallibility from the start as Cristina Catalina makes a frankly astonishing entrance as Morgana, the first, the faster, and undoubtedly the brighter of the two fatefully entangled siblings. She is Game Girl. She fills every scene apparently effortlessly and weaves enchantment between them.

Arthur is played by John Cockerill (pictured above fighting Noel White's Dragon) as the hot-but-dim Once and Future King cast willy-nilly from rash childhood into the web of destiny. It’s an active, well-choreographed part and his delivery is slightly choppy as he catches his breath, but he has the niaive, hotspur vigour we revel in, in our Princes, and the joy with which he sets his Court about founding a new and better world, to Mark Melville's infectious music, stays in my mind.

Shelley Atkinson as the Barrow Woman is a hilarious anchor to the production, filling her boots with the part. She gets my gold star. She seamlessly organises the walkabout, gives commentary on the action, and recycles any spare corpses that fall handily. Her account of her night spent with a member of the audience, while waiting for Arthur to complete a ‘test’, was priceless.

Andrew Ashford plays Billy Poggit to comic effect as a traditional 'rude mechanical', rising stoically from the gutter to the Round Table by taking on Nick Camm’s Green Man. The Green Man is a crafty effect, threatening and comic, therapeutic by nature, and quite an eyeful.

Noel White makes a ruggedly graceful Lancelot, Guinevere's minder, a simple, dedicated knight, who (swoon) is always true. So we are given to believe… His cleverly timed swordplay and gentle dignity make him a very credible object of jealousy.

Joanna Crull is fair Guinevere, a light and frolicsome springtime queen in contrast with the dashing Morgana’s Celtic intensity. Joanna’s crone had me laughing.

Merlin is a long way from being a feminist interpretation of the legend, and gay people won’t get any comfort from it either. A woman friend of mine told me later that she got fed up and left the show early on this account. Little girls in the audience will be left in little doubt that it is always good to do what the man with the robe and the crozier tells you to; let the boys go in front to their doom; give them your kingdom if they will kiss you – or else go mad or stay imprisoned in loneliness until you die. Or perhaps that it’s best to just give up on being a woman altogether and stay a nice, harmless little girl. The suggestion that a chap might be gay is entirely hilarious in Merlin's Camelot, although, to my mind, it was the only thing that could have got Lancelot cleanly off the hook.

In fairness, though, the deep lesson in Dyer's telling is the futile grandeur of a masterplan founded on a (very well-staged) magical perversion of birth, bearing a legacy of deception and distrust. There is no Grail in this Camelot.

But there's always hope. And this devil dances to a very good tune. There are some weakly plastered holes in the plot. Like, why wouldn’t Arthur just drink the medicine? But on the whole it sparkles. The comedy is laugh-out-loud funny, as when Morgana is trying to negotiate a kingdom out of Merlin at the start, and he offers her – Penrith. The dramatic tension hooks you, whether you like the way it’s going or not.

Brent Lees’ sound and Mark Melville’s music are atmospheric, a folk riff echoes the timeless springtime of a new land and the dark woods sheltering us are haunted by threatening forces. How did we escape from a summer’s day to the eerie darkness of the flickering torchlit forest? Beats me, I was completely drawn in.

A dramatic unravelling in the final act surprises us yet again. How do they think of these things? It was a great night out, a real treat and well worth the money. Enjoy.

Merlin and the Legend of King Arthur runs until Saturday 20 August, Monday to Saturday at 7.15pm in Williamson Park.

Monday - Thursday: £16, £12.50 concessions, £11 children
Friday: £17.50, £13.50 concessions, £12 children
Saturday: £19, £15 concessions, £13 children

Family and Friends tickets:(5+ people)save £1 per ticket.

Groups: Buy 12+ and save £1.50 per ticket.
Buy 40+ tickets and save £2.50 per ticket.

Box Office open 10am - 8pm, Mon - Sat. Tel: 01524 598500.
Book online at:

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Lower picture, L-R: Guinevere (Joanna Crull), Arthur (John Cockerill) and Morgana (Cristina Catalina)

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